Few books have had such a lasting impact on the political landscape as 1984. George Orwell’s masterpiece served, and still serves, as a grim warning about the governing systems we let dictate our lives. Whenever a political entity is thought be overstepping their bounds (see the recent NSA snooping scandal), instant comparisons to 1984 are made by everyone, from the global media down to the man in the street. It’s remarkable that in an intensely divided world, there is one thing we can all seem to agree on: the dystopian politics prophesised by Orwell can never be allowed to happen.
And yet, what is often forgotten when discussing 1984 is the gripping narrative at it’s heart. Winston Smith lives in a nightmarish vision of what was once Britain. Shattered by war and civil unrest, the former sovereign nation is now one piece of Oceania, a mighty superstate. Winston works at the Ministry of Truth where his job is to literally change history. Photographs are altered, textbooks changed, all to fit in line with the teachings of the authoritarian ruling party Ingsoc. The head of Ingsoc is Big Brother, an unseen figurehead who is fervently worshipped by Oceania’s citizens.
At night, Winston returns to his dismal one-room apartment, complete with a television screen and a microphone. Through these devices, all his actions are constantly monitored (Sound familiar?). This is the work of the Thought Police, the eagle-eyed agents of Big Brother who keep a watch over all citizens for the slightest hint of dissent. Those found guilty of even thinking about opposing Big Brother are arrested and never heard from again.
Though he appears a diligent worker, Winston harbours a deep hatred for the party. He longs for the freedom he remembers having as a boy and fantasises about rebelling against Big Brother. His fantasies may soon become a reality as he meets O’ Brien. Amiable but secretive, Winston suspects O’ Brien may have ties to the Brotherhood, a terrorist group intent on revolt and the toppling of Big Brother. He also begins a love affair with Julia, a colleague who shares the same desire to revolt that he does. Orwell masterfully crafts the unbearable tension of Winston’s double life. The feeling of being constantly watched by an all-seeing eye is suffocating and gives weight to every act of rebellion, no matter how small.
Some of the most ingenious concepts of 1984 are common expressions to this day: Big Brother, doublethink, Newspeak, thoughtcrime. These ideas were considered far ahead of their time but in fact Orwell took his inspiration from the then recent past. He saw patterns in the rise of Hitler in Germany and Franco in Spain and followed them to what he thought was their logical conclusions. As the saying goes, “if you want to glimpse the future, look behind you”. One of the reasons the novel has become so timeless is in how it provokes the reader to look at the politics of their own time and see where it could lead if left unchecked.
A fine line that exists between truth and fiction, real and unreal. This is reflected not just in the methods of Big Brother and Ingsoc but also in the twists, turns and fake outs of the story. It is remarkably prescient to this day and raises troubling questions about objectivity, war, authority and the human condition. 1984 is a literary classic and as close to required reading as you can get. If you’re looking for something in a similar vein, I would recommend Animal Farm, Orwell’s other great political work, as well as Brave New World by Orwell’s former teacher Aldous Huxley.